The Marijuana Policy Project, one of the biggest organizations working towards policy reform on cannabis in the United States, estimates that around 2.8 million people in the country use marijuana as a form of medication today.
In the past few years, its use has spanned the treatment of various illnesses from chronic and debilitating types of cancer to painful conditions like endometriosis.
While the case for its use in the treatment of physical ailments is straightforward, its role in supporting individuals experiencing mental health difficulties is another matter altogether.
Even today, there is a clear research gap between its application in these contexts.
In investigating the potential for medical marijuana for mental illnesses, there is significant clinical interest in its role in treating conditions like anxiety, psychotic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The data we have so far singles out cannabidiol (CBD) as a potentially useful compound while more research will be required to determine if tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can play a larger role in this area of medicine.
Through the privately funded Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery, neuroscientist Staci Gruber, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, discovered certain promising effects of cannabinoids on mental health as well as on associated indicators like sleep, quality of life, and brain structure and function.
Her studies have shown that individuals who used medical marijuana for mental illness experienced a reduction in clinical symptoms and anxiety-related symptoms.
Perhaps more promising than that, the study also demonstrated that cannabis may reduce the use of conventional medication like benzodiazepines, opioids and other antidepressants and mood stabilizers.
While these medications are a common part of mental health treatment, their potential to be abused has led to debilitating drug addictions and overdoses, which, with medical marijuana, the likelihood may be significantly less.
Beyond just anxiety, however, medical marijuana for mental illness support also covers PTSD.
While a lot of the studies in this area have been confined to animal studies, a telling survey conducted across 170 patients via a dispensary showed that people with high PTSD scores (The PTSD Checklist – Civilian Version) were more likely to use marijuana to improve their coping skills and sleep compared to those with lower scores.
What the animal studies do tell us is that there is compelling evidence to show that the endocannabinoid system has a role to play in fear extinction in the human brain.
By taking effect through the 5HT1A receptor, there’s limited evidence that certain phytocannabinoids may have an antidepressant effect. A survey conducted across medical cannabis users also revealed over 50% of participants used medical marijuana for depression specifically.
That said, it’s recommended that individuals avoid self-diagnosing and self-medicating with marijuana, given that there may be a major difference in therapeutic effect among different compounds like THC and CBD.
Any cannabis-based treatment should be prescribed by a doctor or recommended following a CBD consultation.
While there’s very limited research in this area, what the existing data tell us is that adults experiencing ADHD may self-medicate with marijuana as a means of coping with certain effects.
The use of nabiximols, which is a cannabinoid and terpene combination, has also proved promising among adults with this condition. While more research will need to be conducted, a study on its use showed that these compounds do not impair cognition and may improve hyperactivity and impulsivity scores in adults.
Can you get medical marijuana for mental illnesses?
When activated, the body’s endocannabinoid system along with its receptors regulate a range of functions that cover emotions, memory, the central nervous system, and sleep, among others.
All of these have a significant effect on how individuals manage the mental health conditions they may be experiencing. Via compounds like CBD, terpenes, and phytocannabinoids, therefore, medical marijuana has the potential to help individuals manage the debilitating mental health challenges they may be experiencing.
What we’re lacking today is a holistic approach to treating medical conditions that include medical marijuana interventions. While the evidence and results so far are promising, what’s missing is wide-scale and in-depth research and regulatory buy-in.
When we’ve addressed these primary challenges, it’s likely that medical marijuana for mental illnesses may be a more mainstream therapeutic approach.